“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The outcome of a landmark federal opioid trial in West Virginia that reached closing arguments this week rests on two legally thorny questions.
Was it “unreasonable” for three of America’s biggest corporations — the drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — to ship roughly 81 million highly addictive opioid pills to pharmacies in one small Rust Belt city on the Ohio River?
If that was a reckless thing to do, does the addiction crisis in Huntington and surrounding Cabell County, W.Va., amount to a “public nuisance” that the companies must help remedy?
The answers to those questions will now be decided by U.S. District Judge David Faber in Charleston, W.Va.
His ruling, not expected for at least a month, could set legal precedents that shape corporate accountability for the opioid epidemic raging in thousands of communities across the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500,000 Americans have died since companies began aggressively marketing and distributing prescription pain pills in the late 1990s.
Experts believe the flood of opioid medications served as a kind of gateway, igniting a deadly second wave of addiction and overdose deaths linked to heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
In his closing arguments, attorney Paul Farrell, who lives in Huntington and represents Cabell County, said evidence is clear that the companies’ business practices caused serious harm.
“It was a blowout,” Farrell said. “We had 81 million pills that came flooding into our community. And it wasn’t by accident. Somebody delivered those pills here.”
According to federal data made public during the trial, the pills were shipped to the community from 2006 through 2014, years when America’s opioid epidemic was surging.
Officials in Huntington and Cabell County are asking Faber to award them up to $2.5 billion in damages, money they would use to help ease the opioid crisis.
The companies deny any wrongdoing and say the huge shipments of pills — which they acknowledge occurred — reflected trends in opioid prescribing practices by doctors, which were out of their control.
“We’re a mirror of what’s happening in health care,” Enu Mainigi, an attorney representing Cardinal Health, said in her closing arguments. “We reflect it. We do not drive it.”
Public health experts say the ruling in this landmark federal case will define the public health response to the opioid crisis in hard-hit West Virginia for decades to come.
It could also shape the legal strategies of thousands of communities across the U.S. currently suing the drug industry over companies’ role in making, distributing and selling highly addictive opioid medications.
Over the next 150 days, those communities will decide whether to accept a $21 billion national settlement offered by AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.
Joe Rice, an attorney with Motley Rice who represents dozens of governments suing the drug industry over opioids, including the city of Huntington, said the outcome of the West Virginia case could influence those decisions.
“People are going to watch what happens in Huntington and Cabell,” Rice said.
He noted, however, that the opioid epidemic in West Virginia has been more destructive than in other parts of the U.S., which makes this case unique.
“Huntington and Cabell are one of the hardest-hit areas of the country, so [other communities] will have to measure the facts they have to put forward in what they decide to do in the settlement process or through a trial,” Rice told NPR.
This is a community where 1 in 10 people is opioid dependent
Over the course of this trial, attorneys for Huntington and Cabell County argued that the companies failed to implement adequate monitoring systems to detect oversupply of opioids. The firms all dispute those claims.
Public health experts testified that the impact of that “tsunami” of pills has been profound on this community of roughly 91,000 people. One in 10 residents of Cabell County is now believed to be opioid dependent.
According to data presented during the trial, more than 2,500 children have been born with developmental challenges linked to opioid use by their mothers. Over the last five years, 6,400 people have experienced overdoses.
The community has also seen a related crisis of HIV/AIDs and hepatitis because of contaminated-needle use.
In his closing arguments, Farrell said the opioid epidemic could be overcome with adequate funding.
“We’re trying to create treatment programs that can make a difference and save lives and be a shining example for the nation of how to get out of this problem,” he said.
Drug distributors blame doctors and regulators
Attorneys representing AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson acknowledged shipping tens of millions of opioid pills to Huntington and Cabell County. They also agreed that an addiction crisis is ravaging the community.
But during closing arguments, attorneys for the three firms argued that the companies acted responsibly, shipping pain pills only on the basis of legally written prescriptions to licensed pharmacies.
They also downplayed the significance of the large quantities of opioids distributed to pharmacies in the community.
“Volume does not equal wrongdoing,” said Mainigi, from Cardinal Health’s legal team. “What caused the increase in volume was the change in the standard in care. Doctors prescribed more opioids to treat pain. The evidence shows they wrote those prescriptions in good faith.”
“Licensed physicians chose to prescribe more opioid medications,” said Robert Nicholas, an attorney representing AmerisourceBergen. “Distributors did not second-guess these judgments. … They weren’t qualified to do that. It wasn’t their place to do that.”
At one point, however, Faber questioned whether the magnitude of opioid shipments delivered to the community might trigger some legal liability.
“Is there some point at which the number would be so great that it would be unreasonable?” Faber asked.
Attorneys representing the firms noted that national quotas for opioid production are regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“The DEA permits this volume of pills,” said attorney Timothy Hester, representing McKesson. “It cannot be possible to call that distribution of pills unreasonable.”
For the corporations, tens of billions of dollars in potential liability are at stake, along with potential harm to their reputations as cornerstones of America’s for-profit health system.
While the federal case in West Virginia nears conclusion and states weigh whether to join the national opioid settlement involving the drug distributors, a wider legal reckoning is unfolding in courtrooms around the U.S. over corporate America’s role in the opioid crisis.
State opioid trials are underway in California and New York, with another major federal opioid trial against pharmacy chains now scheduled for October in Ohio.
Biden is the president liberal court watchers have been waiting for, but he may be five years too late.
Joe Biden probably knows more about picking judges than any new president in American history.
A longtime member and former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden oversaw hundreds of judicial confirmations. He chaired the 1987 hearing that successfully convinced the Senate to reject Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court; then presided over a far less successful hearing that preceded Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation in 1991.
As president, he’s approached judicial selection with a seriousness of purpose that hasn’t been seen in a Democratic White House since at least the Carter administration. With eight Biden judges currently sitting on the federal bench, including three court of appeals judges, Biden’s appointed more judges at this point in his presidency than any newly elected president since Richard Nixon.
Biden’s nominated 22 more, and he has the potential to shape much of the federal bench very rapidly. Currently, there are 82 vacancies throughout the federal judiciary, nearly 10 percent of the bench, although most of these vacancies are on relatively low-ranking district courts.
When I speak with liberal advocates jaded by years of failed efforts to get Democrats — including the Obama White House — to take judicial appointments as seriously as Republicans, their attitudes toward Biden range from measured enthusiasm to something approaching ecstasy. Though Biden received some criticism from his left for nominating two management-side employment lawyers to vacant seats in New Jersey, nearly all of the advocates that I spoke with were thrilled with Biden’s overall record on judicial nominations.
Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who now leads the liberal American Constitution Society, told me that Biden’s judicial confirmation efforts are off to a “tremendous start.” Daniel Goldberg of the Alliance for Justice, an organization that spent the Trump years producing research memos warning about the former president’s nominees, summarized his opinion of Biden’s approach to judges in a single word: “outstanding.”
And yet, while liberal veterans of the judicial wars now have the president many of them have hoped for their entire career, Biden may have arrived five years too late. The sad reality for the new president is that he’s likely to need every ounce of political skill and institutional knowledge that he gained after decades of confirming judges to pull the judiciary back from where his predecessor left it. And he may still fail to do so.
Biden had been president less than a week when the first Trump judge handed down a decision sabotaging one of his policies. The judge was Drew Tipton, a federal judge in Texas with only a few months of experience on the bench, and the sabotaged policy was a 100-day pause on deportations that the administration announced on Biden’s first day in office.
Tipton’s opinion explaining why he blocked the deportation moratorium flouted decades of precedent. And Tipton has hardly been the only judge to behave this way during Biden’s still-young presidency.
President Biden, in other words, began his presidency deep in a hole. He faces a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court, and dozens of Trump’s lower court judges eager to make a name for themselves (and potentially score a promotion in a future Republican administration) by undercutting Democratic policies. He is the heir to an Obama administration that, at least early on,treated judicial confirmations as an annoying distraction from other business, and to a Trump administration that treated the judiciary as its most lasting legacy.
And that legacy could include disrupting Biden’s entire presidency.
The Obama White House dropped the ball
President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees faced several structural obstacles that do not hinder Biden’s. When Obama took office, the filibuster enabled Republicans to block any nominee who didn’t have supermajority support in the Senate, and it enabled the GOP to slow the Senate’s business to an excruciating crawl even when Democrats did have the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster.
Then-Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — like so many other Democrats who cling to their own idiosyncraticnotions of how institutions should function at the expense of governance— insisted on giving Republican senators veto power over anyone nominated to a federal judicial vacancy in their state by taking an unusually expansive view of a Senate tradition known as the “blue slip.” The current chair, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), will not allow Republicans to veto at least some of Biden’s nominees, especially his nominees to powerful appellate courts.
Obama also had to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in his first year, which made it difficult for the White House or the Senate to pay as much attention to lower court nominees.
But even if Obama was dealt a more difficult hand on judicial confirmations than Biden, he played that hand terribly.
At least in the first year of his presidency, Obama staffed his White House with senior officials who either treated the process of shepherding judges to confirmation as a chore, or who lacked experience with judicial politics.
Obama, meanwhile, prevailed on Craig to hire Cassandra Butts, a personal friend and law school classmate of Obama’s with a distinguished career on Capitol Hill and in left-of-center politics. (Disclosure: In 2015, I interned on the Center for American Progress’s domestic policy team, which Butts led.) Craig made her his deputy overseeing judicial nominations.
Yet, while Butts was undoubtedly qualified to work in the White House, she had limited experience working in judicial politics. And her legislative background also fit in poorly in a White House counsel’s office that placed credentials such as a Supreme Court clerkship or practice at a white-shoe law firm on a pedestal. That appears to have diminished her influence.
The result of this mix of inexperience and indifference is that the early Obama White House was often slow to nominate judges. And it stumbled into traps that aides more familiar with judicial politics might have avoided.
Here’s an example: About two months into Obama’s presidency, the White House announced that it would nominate Indiana federal trial Judge David Hamilton to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Hamilton was Obama’s first judicial nominee, and the president intended to use Hamilton’s nomination to extend an olive branch to Republicans.
But, if the Obama White House had paid more attention to Hamilton’s record as a federal district judge, they would have known that he was not the sort of judge who could be sold to Republicans as a peace offering.
The point is not that Hamilton was wrong in any of these decisions, or that he should not have been confirmed to the Seventh Circuit. Hamilton is an excellent judge, and the rule of law depends on judges who are willing to hand down decisions that may make them unpopular. But a White House staffed with veterans of past judicial confirmation fights would have understood that a judge with Hamilton’s record on abortion and religion would trigger significant opposition from Republicans.
Though Obama’s judicial confirmations effort grew more sophisticated later in his presidency, it never fully recovered from its early missteps. In eight years as president, Obama appointed only 55 federal appellate judges — just one more than Trump appointed in only four years in the White House.
Biden learned from Obama’s mistakes
The charitable interpretation of the Obama White House’s early missteps is that it had a lot on its plate. It was trying to dig the nation out of a catastrophic recession, and didn’t want to get bogged down in fights over judges. As Feingold told me, judicial nominations “got put on the back burner” during much of Obama’s presidency.
But President Biden faces at least as many challenges as Obama did during his first term in office. Biden also is trying to revive a stalled economy, and he’s doing so as the world seeks to curb what is hopefully a once-in-a-century pandemic. Plus, Biden faces an opposition party that increasingly views Democrats as illegitimate. Republicans worked hard to undermine Obama’s policy agenda, but even the Obama-era Republican Party didn’t try to sabotage an investigation into a violent attempt to overthrow the United States government and install Donald Trump as president.
And yet, with so many crises to confront at once, Biden has still confirmed more judges this early in his presidency than any other chief executive in the past half-century. He’s hired senior staff who understand judicial politics and take confirming judges very seriously. It is “clear that the White House counsel’s office and the Oval Office consider this a high priority,” said Feingold.
“Having [White House Chief of Staff] Ron Klain in the White House has been about the best thing we could have hoped for when it comes to judicial nominations,” according to Molly Coleman of the People’s Parity Project, a group that organizes law students and young lawyers to “unrig the legal systemand build a justice system that values people over profits.”
Klain oversaw President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominations efforts, including the confirmation of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Coleman told me that, when she took a course from Klain as a law student, it was clear that the future chief of staff “took pride” in the time he spent ushering Clinton’s nominees onto the bench.
He’s a far cry, in other words, from Rahm Emanuel. Klain has been one of the White House’s biggest cheerleaders for judicial confirmations.
With the confirmation of Judge Griggsby, @POTUS has now had more judges confirmed to the federal bench before July 1, then any President in the past 50 years! https://t.co/isXGhntLI4— Ronald Klain (@WHCOS) June 16, 2021
This is a team that knows what it is doing in picking and confirming judges.
Why liberal groups are so pleased with Biden’s judges
When I spoke to liberal legal groups in 2020, I consistently heard that they had two requests from a Democratic White House regarding judges. They wanted nominees who were demographically diverse, but they also wanted nominees who had a diversity of experience working to benefit the least fortunate. A frequent complaint about President Obama was that he nominated too many partners at corporate law firms, and that he nominated too many prosecutors and not enough civil rights lawyers or public defenders.
Biden’s transition team signaled that he would meet these requests a month before he took office. In a December 2020 letter to Democratic senators, Remus told those lawmakers that “with respect to U.S. District Court positions, we are particularly focused on nominating individuals whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench, including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represent Americans in every walk of life.”
Thus far, the Biden White House has delivered on its goal of appointing judges from diverse backgrounds. One of Biden’s first judicial appointments was Judge Zahid Quraishi, the first Muslim American to serve on the federal bench. In all of American history, only 11 Black women have served on a United States Court of Appeals. Three of them — Judges Ketanji Brown Jackson, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, and Tiffany Cunningham — were appointed by Biden in the last six months.
Both Judges Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi, moreover, are former public defenders, as is Eunice Lee, a Biden nominee to the Second Circuit. Myrna Pérez, another Biden nominee to that court, directs the voting rights project at the Brennan Center for Justice. Jennifer Sung, a Biden nominee to the Ninth Circuit, is a former union organizer and union-side litigator.
“People who in the past couldn’t even contemplate being judges” are now being nominated, Goldberg from the Alliance for Justice told me. In many cases (though not in every case), Biden is passing over the sort of high-dollar lawyers who are most likely to be politically connected in favor of more service-focused attorneys.
At least at the appellate level, moreover, the typical Biden nominee is someone who chose to spend much of their pre-judicial career in public service, despite having the sort of credentials that could have set them up for a much more lucrative career. Jackson, Jackson-Akiwumi, Lee, Pérez, and Sung all clerked for a federal appellate judge — an elite credential that is normally reserved for the most high-performing young lawyers — and Jackson also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
And yet, for all of his early successes, it remains to be seen whether Biden can keep up the pace.
Biden has mostly nominated people to the easiest judicial vacancies to fill
One other thing that unites Biden’s nominees is that they largely hail from blue states with two Democratic senators. These are the easiest vacancies for a Democratic president to fill because allied lawmakers are more likely to cooperate with Biden in identifying potential nominees. But it’s also because of the legacy of an old patronage system that still gives senators outsized influence over nominees from their state.
Before the Jimmy Carter administration, the White House typically gave enormous deference to home-state senators when choosing federal judges — indeed, the Senate Judiciary Committee would often refuse to hold a hearing on a nominee if the president tried to appoint someone other than the choice of the nominee’s home-state senator. President Carter weakened senators’ roles by setting up a now-defunct merit selection commission to select court of appeals judges, but senators continue to play an outsized role in choosing trial judges even to this day.
The primary mechanism for maintaining this patronage system is the “blue slip,” named after the blue pieces of paper home-state senators use to indicate whether they approve of a nominee. Under Sen. Leahy, home-state senators were allowed to veto any nominee to a federal judgeship in their state. But the committee’s current practice is to only allow senators to veto district judges, the lowest rank of federal judges who receive lifetime appointments.
But even a limited blue slip rule presents problems for Biden. It’s hard to imagine that senators like Josh Hawley (R-MO), who threw a fist up in solidarity with the protesters that later attacked the US Capitol in a failed effort to overturn Biden’s election, would consent to anyone nominated by Biden. And even many Republican senators who accept the results of the 2020 election are likely to prefer leaving an open judicial seat vacant to filling it with a Biden nominee.
A potentially even more difficult political problem for Biden is what he should do about Democratic senators who drag their feet when the White House seeks their input on potential nominees in their state. Or if they offer recommendations that do not comport with Biden’s values. Biden could simply go around such senators, but doing so carries its own risks. Especially in a Senate where Democrats enjoy the narrowest possible majority, there are obvious reasons why the White House may be reluctant to anger a Democratic senator.
There’s also a final, more pragmatic reason why the White House may prefer to work with home-state senators if they can. Senators are more likely to be familiar with the lawyers in their state than the president and his aides, and thus may be able to suggest outstanding candidates who would otherwise be overlooked.
There are potential workarounds if a senator refuses to provide such input — Zahra Mion with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told me that “in Florida we’ve already seen some state legislative members set up commissions” to identify potential nominees, for example. But, because senators have historically advised presidents on judicial nominations, a senator is more likely to have already set up such a commission and established the relationships with their state bar that would allow them to provide good advice.
What if Biden does everything right, and it isn’t enough?
The elephant looming over Biden’s effort to shape the bench is that there’s always a degree of randomness to judicial selection. Biden — and liberal democracy more broadly — would stand on much stronger footing if Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg had lived just a few months longer, allowing Biden to choose her successor. And Justice Stephen Breyer’s decision to hold onto his seat, during what could be a very brief window in which Democrats control the Senate, could easily end in disaster for both the Democratic Party and democracy itself.
“The conventional wisdom,” Coleman, with the People’s Parity Project, told me, “is that we don’t have the full four years to get nominees confirmed. We have until the midterms.” And even that might be optimistic. If Republicans regain control of the Senate — either through an election or through the death or departure of a Democratic senator — GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is likely to impose the same near-total blockade on Biden’s Supreme Court and appellate nominees that he imposed on Obama when McConnell had the power to do so.
The other potential catastrophe looming over the Biden White House is what happens if the Supreme Court goes rogue, invalidating Biden’s policies on the flimsiest legal arguments, or even permitting Republican state lawmakers to rig elections outright? Biden’s signaled that he’s not willing to add seats to the Supreme Court to ward off this problem, and it’s unlikely that Biden could get such a bill through Congress if he changes his mind. So his influence over the judiciary will ultimately be shaped by which judges leave the bench during his time in office.
Biden will need more than just a lifetime of experience confirming judges if he hopes to reverse Trump’s impact on the judiciary. He’s also going to need a lot of luck.
On a bright morning in July, a crowd gathered on a boat ramp in St Augustine, Florida, awaiting the arrival of a young male manatee named Gerard. The marshy Matanzas River gently flowed around oyster beds and sawgrass islands as biologists organized their equipment.Nearby about a dozen onlookers paced by the shore, waiting to catch a glimpse of Gerard’s return to the wild following weeks of captivity.
Earlier in spring, beachgoers discovered Gerard stranded and sunbaked in Palm Coast, about 25 miles south of St Augustine, on the Atlantic Ocean. Samaritans draped wet towels over the feeble marine mammal, keeping him cool and shaded from the subtropical sun, as a rescue team raced to the scene. Gravely thin, Gerard was transported to Jacksonville Zoo, where he spent the next 10 weeks in critical care until he was plump enough to re-enter the wild.
Gerard was one of the lucky ones.
Hundreds of Florida manatees have died this year along the state’s east coast in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has labeled an “unusual mortality event”. At least 881 manatees have died in Florida since January, far exceeding the annual average of 578 deaths between 2015 and 2020.
Ground zero for the sudden uptick in deaths is the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile-long estuary that serves as a seasonal habitat for thousands of manatees. Decades of water pollution from farming and real estate development has pushed the ecosystem to the brink, causing the manatees to perish from an almost entirely manmade disaster: famine.
The current manatee crisis is “just a symptom of a system under extreme stress”, says Duane de Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Estuary Program, an agency that works to protect the waterway.
Now, scientists and activists are scrambling to avert further disaster.
A disturbing diagnosis
Last December, Martine de Wit puzzled over a troubling trend: manatees were dying at an alarming rate on the east coast of Florida. De Wit, a veterinarian who necropsies manatees for the Florida Fish and Wildlife ConservationCommission (FWC), attributed the deaths to stress caused by cold snaps that brought freezing temperatures to the Sunshine State. Despite their pudgy appearance, manatees lack blubber and are highly sensitive to cold. When temperatures drop below 68 degrees, they sometimes stop eating, begin to thin and crowd around in pockets of warm water.
But as temperatures rose in January, manatee deaths continued to climb. And by the first week of February, de Wit made a new diagnosis. Tissue samples taken from the gaunt carcasses delivered to her lab in St Petersburg showed atrophy in vital organs –telltale signs of starvation.
“They were severely emaciated,” de Wit said. Some were 40 percent below their expected body weight. The damage “was not something we have seen before on this scale in these large animals.”
By late April, after more than 696 manatees had died, federal officials stepped in to investigate and respond to the crisis.
During summer months, manatees venture as far north as New England for food. By winter, many manatees historically returned to the warm waters and abundant forage of Florida’s rivers, springsand coastal lagoons – habitats now frequented by people – following routes passed down over generations.
“When we put in power plants, we complicated the situation because we provided warm-water sources that aren’t necessarily in the best places [for manatees],” said Mike Walsh, co-director of aquatic animal health at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Generations of manatees have learned to return to these locations, Walsh said, where algal blooms and overgrazing have decimated seagrass coverage. Frigid temperatures can leave them trapped by invisible walls of cold water with next to nothing to eat. Malnourished manatees burn through vital body fat. Nursing calves drain their mothers dry. Some manatees survive the winter too weak to fully recover, and food supply is sparse for those who make it.
“Everything has been compromised,” Walsh said. “They don’t have enough to get by.”
Fields of seagrass suffocated by human development
Seagrass meadows once spanned nearly 80,000 acres in the Indian River Lagoon, where they serve as a cornerstone of one of the country’s most biodiverse estuaries. Their roots hold sediment in place, improving water quality and sequestering carbon.
These habitats suffered from coastal developments, which today expel some 2.5 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus into the estuary every year from septic tanks, lawns and farms. Meanwhile decades of organic matter has settled to the bottom as muck, a gooey substance that leaches nutrients into the water column.
“Basically all of the system has been declared impaired because the nutrient loads are too high,” said Charles Jacoby, an environmental scientist at the St John’s River water management district.
Combined nutrient loads can nourish intense algal blooms that block out sunlight and kill seagrass. A superbloom resembling pea soup in 2011 ushered in a devastating decade for the Indian River Lagoon. Nearly 46,000 acres of seagrass have disappeared as a result of these blooms.
In 2013, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began a 15-year plan to address the damage in the Indian River Lagoon by dredging to remove muck, improving stormwater treatment and connecting homes that use leaky septic tanks to the sewer system.
“There’s no silver bullet unfortunately,” Jacoby said. “It’s going to take a lot of different efforts.”
Tour boats driving manatees from critical refuge
On the official emblem of Crystal River, a city on Florida’s Gulf Coast, there’s a banner reading “Home of the Manatee” that spirals around the image of a well-fed sea cow. The mammal is more than a mascot for the city – it’s an industry. Winter months bring hundreds of manatees to the warm, spring-fed waters of the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge. The only place in the country where people can legally swim with manatees, the refuge permits dozens of companies to offer tours to people eager for up-close encounters with the gentle giants.
On a sunny morning in June, Mike and Stacy Dunn boarded a pontoon boat for a trip around the bay. Only a few dozen manatees remain in Kings Bay this time of year, most of them nursing mothers and calves, so the Dunns take summer months off from the tour company they’ve operated for 12 years to avoid disturbing the sea cows and calves nursing in the canals. The Dunns know the bay better than most and volunteer as scouts for injured animals.
As the Dunns idled through the crystalline canals around Kings Bay, they passed fistfuls of slender seagrass uprooted by boat propellers or grazing marine life. These signs of abundance were all but absent a decade ago, when thick layers of muck and algae caked the bay. Manatees became so desperate for food, the Dunns watched them nearly sink a small island by munching on the foundation of roots to the serrated sawgrass.
Even the offseason brings crowds to Kings Bay, allowing some tours to operate year round. Nearby, a group of about ten people swam face down, buoyed by floating noodles and snorkels to the sky, as they approached a submerged sea cow. Swimmers are meant to practice “passive observance,” according to FWC guidelines, but the Dunns said not all tours enforce a no-contact policy.
For Pat Rose, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee, Crystal River is both a model and cautionary tale for manatee conservation. Kings Bay is a critical refuge and the seagrass restoration project shows how resources can help improve manatee habitats. But the barrage of activity in the bay can distress the sea cows.
“It’s creating a lot of harassment and driving manatees out,” he said. As manatee populations rebounded, Florida failed to find more sanctuaries for the species. He worries the sea cows will always teeter on the edge of collapse without designated habitats.
A ‘bittersweet’ release, perhaps to face another famine
Gerard, the 600-pound rehabilitated manatee, arrived at the St Augustine boat ramp in the back of a box truck. In the bed of a nearby pickup, Monica Ross, a research scientist from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, prepared wildlife tracking equipment. For the next year, Ross and her team hope to monitor Gerard’s migration and feeding patterns using a satellite tracking tag that buoys behind the manatee like a fishing bobber and transmits his location.
By monitoring tagged manatees, Ross can document where they feed and how they use natural warm-water refuges. This data may guide protection plans for critical winter habitats. As energy production shifts away from fossil fuels, questions remain about how manatees will respond – and where they will go – when power plants, like those in the Indian River Lagoon, close down.
Seven people hauled Gerard out of the box truck on a blue stretcher and doused him with buckets of water. Having gained more than 100 pounds at Jacksonville Zoo, Gerard assumed the ovate shape of bread dough, formless but robust, the picture of fitness for a young sea cow. Once Ross tethered the tag to a belt around his tail, the team lowered the manatee into the turbid Matanzas River, where he disappeared beneath the surface save for the bobber trailing behind him.
The crowd cheered and shouted farewells, but for Ross the release was “bittersweet”. She worries Gerard will eventually head south to the Indian River Lagoon, where he’ll likely face another winter famine.
“Normally, when you release an animal, you’re very happy,” she said. “But we’re very concerned about what he’s going to have to deal with this winter.”
Dr Habib Naqvi, director of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, welcomed the updated guidance on pulse oximeters.
“Although a valuable clinical tool, clinicians are increasingly becoming aware of the potential errors or inconsistencies associated with pulse oximeters, so we need to have this in mind when using the devices,” he said.
Dr Omar Jundi, an intensive care consultant in West Yorkshire, observed inaccuracies in pulse oximeter readings in black Covid patients.
“It’s something I would pick up on at least once a day, in maybe two or three patients,” he said.
“It’s an aspect of the sort of systemic biases and systemic racism that occur in the NHS and the care that we provide in the NHS every day.”
Figures show that people from black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups are more likely to get coronavirus, and become seriously unwell or die from it.
Experts believe the potential inaccuracies in pulse oximeters may be a contributing factor to this.
“We need to ensure there is common knowledge on potential limitations in healthcare equipment and devices, particularly for populations at heightened risk of life-changing illness, this includes black, Asian and diverse communities using pulse oximeters to monitor their oxygen levels at home,” Dr Naqvi said.
He added it was vital that culturally-inclusive research now took place to ensure that pulse oximeters performed accurately on people with darker skin tones.
You want to be productive. Software wants to help. But even with a glut of tools claiming to make us all into taskmasters, we almost never master our tasks.
Back in 2010, Walter Chen and Rodrigo Guzman had a weird idea: a website where you write down the stuff you accomplished that day, and which then emails you a summary. It would be a productivity tool that worked by a neat psychological hack, impressing yourself with your daily wins. “Often you discover that you’ve done more than you gave yourself credit for,” Chen says. “And this kind of motivates you—inspires you!”
Chen was a disenchanted lawyer; Guzman, a witty and talkative hacker. They built the tool in less than a week and launched it as IDoneThis. Soon they built an app by the same name and acquired 6,000 users. Within half a year, IDoneThis was the two creators’ full-time job.
But then those users started clamoring for more. People didn’t want merely to track the stuff they’d already done. They wanted to help plan for what they were going to do—from projects at work to the blizzard of tasks in their personal lives. Guzman and Chen updated IDoneThis with a new feature: to-do lists.
Which is when things went a little off the rails.
It wasn’t long before the two founders noticed something odd in the (anonymized) data they had on their users: People were lousy at finishing their to-dos. Chen and Guzman could see an accumulation of sprawling, ambitious lists of tasks that users utterly failed to accomplish. In 2014, fully 41 percent of to-do items on IDoneThis were never … done.
Sound familiar? The tasks you so diligently enter into your fancy app or productivity method linger for days or weeks or months (or even longer—one colleague recently told me his to-do app has undone tasks from 2019). They stare back, unchecked, with baleful expressions, disappointed at how very un-crossed-off they are.
Another thing that might feel familiar: The things that IDoneThis users actually did accomplish, they did very quickly. Half of completed to-do items were done within a day of writing them down. These weren’t longer-term, complex tasks. Ten percent were done within a minute. It was almost like people were writing them down just so they had something to check off. A nice psychological boost, to be sure, but it somewhat defeated the purpose of a to-do list.
More subtly, there was a big disjoint between the tasks people planned to do—i.e., wrote down on lists—and the tasks they actually did. Chen and Guzman found that when people reported their day’s accomplishments (the initial point of IDoneThis, you’ll recall), barely any of them had even appeared on a to-do list. The majority were tasks that users had just, well, remembered. Or maybe it was something that just popped into their head, or something a colleague had emailed them about.
The more Chen and Guzman pondered it, the more useless to-do lists seemed to be. They thought about getting rid of them. If to-do lists weren’t helping people accomplish stuff, what was the point? But they worried that users would squawk.
Which they might have, if they’d hung around—the founders noticed a frustratingly high churn rate. A minority would mind-meld with IDoneThis, but most would, in time, drift away on a seemingly endless hunt for the best way to manage their to-dos. “It involved a lot of, not dilettantes, but people who wanted to try something new or were interested in a different system,” Chen says.
People loved to write down their tasks. But that didn’t seem to help with completing them. Chen and Guzman became gradually chagrined. After five years of working on IDoneThis, they sold the company to a private equity firm. “We felt like we’d exhausted what we knew to do,” Guzman says. IDoneThis isn’t gone; you can still use it today. But its creators couldn’t shake the feeling that building the perfect system to effectively manage tasks was itself a task they couldn’t accomplish.
I think I know why: It might be impossible.
Most common office tasks have well-settled software “solutions.” If I asked you to write a document, you’d probably use Word or Google Docs. To make a presentation, you’d pull up PowerPoint or Keynote or Google Slides.
Not so for to-dos. There is no Way That Everyone Does It. It’s a crazy Pokémon deck of options: Trello, Todoist, Gmail’s tasks, Microsoft To Do, Remember the Milk, Things, OmniFocus, Any.do, Evernote’s Tasks, and Clear, to name just a few. And that doesn’t even count the whackload of us using one big ol’ Notepad file on our computers, or even plain old paper.
“There are hundreds of commercially available to-do lists right now,” says my friend Mark Hurst. Fifteen years ago he created one of the first productivity apps, Good Todo. Today it has a relatively small user base, but in general, productivity apps are big business; Americans downloaded them 7.1 billion times last year.
Chen and Guzman’s experience with trying to make one turns out to be common. The creators of personal to-do apps—or task management software, as it’s sometimes called—generally agree that they haven’t cracked the nut. Every one of these apps attempts to handle the same kind of basic actions: Give people a way to write down tasks, like “Get milk” or “Finish the sales memo,” and offer tools to sort and prioritize those tasks. Ideally, that improves your productivity, which broadly is how many things you can actually get done in a given amount of time. It seems easy enough.
But when I talk to folks who use these apps, I see a strange inconclusiveness. A scant minority of us check off everything every day. An equally tiny minority simply Cannot Even and are curled in a fetal ball awaiting imminent firing. But most of us? We’re just sort of … meh. We bounce from app to app, never quite finding a home. “I’ll try that one. I’ll try that one. I’ll try that one. Maybe this will do the magic!” as Randy Shulman, editor and publisher of Metro Weekly, Washington, DC’s LGBTQ paper, tells me. Sure, we’re getting work done! But we always feel slightly out of control, haunted by the to-dos at work and home that we just aren’t nailing.
The question is, why? Not just why it’s so hard to make a to-do app that works, but why people often feel so distraught by their hunt for the perfect organizational system. I’ve written about software for years, and I can tell you that people often have surprisingly deep feelings about their apps. But rarely is a category of software linked to such vistas of despair.
In the 1920s, the German psychologist Kurt Lewin was dining in a restaurant and noticed something remarkable. As one version of the story goes, Lewin realized that the waiters were able to meticulously recall specific food orders—until they’d served the food and the customer was gone. After that, they couldn’t remember any of those details at all. Lewin’s student, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik, became fascinated by this phenomenon. She started working on it in her lab. In a now classic set of experiments, she gave volunteers a series of tasks (assemble a cardboard box, make a figure out of clay, do some arithmetic). Then she’d interrupt them, checking to see what the volunteers actually remembered.
Zeigarnik found a quirk of the human mind: When a task is unfinished, we can’t seem to stop thinking about it. We perseverate. Psychologists still argue about why; possibly it’s a kind of constant refresh to keep whatever’s pending from vanishing from our short-term memory, like putting something by the front door at night so you don’t forget to take it with you the next morning.
Whatever the cause, today this is known as the Zeigarnik effect, and psychologists who study task management say it’s part of why so many of us feel perpetually frazzled by the challenge of organizing work and life. When we face all that undone stuff—emails to write, calls to return, people to contact, friends to check in on, memos to draft, children to help—it’s like being a waiter serving a hundred tables at once. If you’ve found yourself in bed at 2 am with your brain screaming at you about that thing you didn’t do, that’s a Zeigarnik moment.
A good to-do tool ought to ease the Zeigarnik effect. In 2011, psychologists E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister showed that this does seem to be the case. They triggered the Zeigarnik effect in volunteers by giving them a task and not letting them complete it. It lingered in their minds and interfered with their ability to do other work. Then the psychologists allowed the subjects to write out a plan for how they’d get that outstanding task done, and, presto, it lessened the effect. Speccing out what you’re going to do—getting it outside of your head—seems to help you stop perseverating.
And indeed, those who regularly write down their to-dos seem to possess a mind less jittery. Shamarukh Chowdhury, a PhD student in psychology at Carleton University, has found that people who create to-do lists are less likely to procrastinate than those who don’t. More delightfully yet, a study by Baylor University psychologist Michael Scullin found that people who created a to-do list fell asleep nine minutes faster, on average, than those who didn’t.
The creators of to-do apps all intuit the challenge of the Zeigarnik effect. They say that a key part of their apps is how frictionless they make it for us to input tasks. They’ve all worked to make this an instantaneous process: Open the app on your phone, shout at Siri or Alexa, or even email a new to-do item to your software.
Alas, this often makes things worse. Sure, the Zeigarnik effect is eased if you make a plan: I’ll do this, then do this, then do this, and then I’m done. One of the most famous productivity systems—David Allen’s Getting Things Done—is ruthlessly focused on rigorous planning and editing of tasks. It can take hours, but once you’ve done that hard work, you can plow through the tasks, one after another, with the metronomicity of a Chrysler line robot.
The problem is that we too often don’t really plan. Digital apps make it easy to add more tasks to the pile, and it feels good to get tasks out of our Zeigarnicized heads. So we do, frenetically.
“We call it snowballing,” says Amir Salihefendić, who founded the app Todoist in 2007; it currently has 30 million users. “They keep postponing stuff. And then suddenly you have a hundred tasks that you need to do.” Weeks or months later, your Todoist app is a teetering ziggurat of tasks, too painful even to behold. Omer Perchik, the creator of another app—Any.do—calls this problem “the List of Shame.”
And then what do we do? You’ve probably done it: We panic, give up, and quit. We “declare to-do bankruptcy.” We toss the list away in defeat and start fresh.
You can blame Zeigarnik again. The mere act of making a to-do list relieves so much itchy stress that it can, paradoxically, reduce the pressure to actually get stuff done. “People feel that when they put all their tasks somewhere, they’ve already done most of the work,” Perchik says. But it’s an illusion. The pile of work is still there.
More than a pile! If you feel adrift on a turbulent sea of unmanageable tasks, that might be because there is objectively more expected of us. By one estimate, work hours for those with college degrees went up about 7 percent between 1980 and 2016. Got a graduate degree? For you it went up more than 9 percent. And quite apart from one’s paid toil, there’s been an increase in social work—all the messaging and posts and social media garden-tending that the philosopher and technologist Ian Bogost calls “hyperemployment.”
(We could snap the lens open even wider and have a fuller reckoning with capitalism. Focusing on our individual ability to tread water—with apps and lists—can look like a bleak exercise in blaming the victim, when in reality the only solution is not better apps but non-hideous workloads, debt relief, and a saner landscape of civic care. Frankly, if you took “managing grotesquely useless and bloodsucking for-profit health insurance” off people’s to-do lists, it would remove one remarkably stressful item, as my Canadian upbringing compels me to suggest. But I’m writing this particular article from within the belly of the whale, as it were.)
No matter whose fault it is, we take this stuff personally. American to-do behavior has a deeply puritan streak. Benjamin Franklin was among the first to pioneer to-do lists, creating a checklist of “virtues”—temperance! frugality! moderation!—that he intended to practice every day. That’s what the information scientist Gilly Leshed and computer scientist and cultural theorist Phoebe Sengers, both at Cornell University, found when they talked to people about their to-do lists. “They abide by the norm of ‘We need to be productive citizens of this world,’” Leshed tells me. Doing more is doing good.
To-do lists are, in the American imagination, a curiously moral type of software. Nobody opens Google Docs or PowerPoint thinking “This will make me a better person.” But with to-do apps, that ambition is front and center. “Everyone thinks that, with this system, I’m going to be like the best parent, the best child, the best worker, the most organized, punctual friend,” says Monique Mongeon, a product manager at the book-sales-tracking firm BookNet and a self-admitted serial organizational-app devotee. “When you start using something to organize your life, it’s because you’re hoping to improve it in some way. You’re trying to solve something.”
With to-do apps, we are attempting nothing less than to craft a superior version of ourselves. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that when we fail, the moods run so black.
Programmers often describe software as being “opinionated.” In the guise of helping us try to do things, productivity software recommends we do them in a particular way. A to-do app is offering an opinion about how we ought to organize our lives, which is, when you think about it, a kind of intense opinion for a piece of code to hold, right?
This is part of why we have such strong feelings about any given task-management tool. We either love it or hold it in bitter contempt.
Jesse Patel created the app Workflowy because he had ADHD and wanted a tool that worked as his mind required. In the late 2000s he was working as a head of business development, with “five different big-picture opportunity areas and, like, 30 different subprojects in each of those. It was just so overwhelming.” He noticed that each work task tended to spawn tons of subtasks. But most software, he found, wasn’t great at allowing for that Russian-nesting-doll quality. He wanted a “fractal” tool where every to-do could contain more little to-dos inside it.
So he taught himself to program and created Workflowy to function just so: When you open a new project, you write items that can spawn endless sub-items, all of which can be dragged around and reorganized. If things look too cluttered, you can collapse everything so you see only your top-level tasks. “It’s a universe for your thoughts,” Patel says.
It’s a big universe—250,000 active users, like the construction site manager who told Patel that he made items for each room, with sub-items for anything the room needed. (“That room has, like, four missing bolts.”) I heard from people who loved Workflowy; I also heard from people who thought the whole fractal thing was a dead end. Salihefendić’s app Todoist once allowed levels upon levels of subtasks, but he got rid of them after noticing that only a fraction of people used them, and they were mostly just dorking around, organizing their subtasks instead of actually doing work.
Pick virtually any postulate about “the best way to get organized” and app designers will have diametrically opposing views. The app Things lets you put a due date on each task; Hurst, the founder of Good Todo, hissingly denounces due dates as a form of productivity self-harm that turns into a screenful of blinking red overdue alerts.
So the software is opinionated, as are its makers. But they’re also weirdly humble. Most of the app builders I spoke with admitted that, for many who try their tool, it won’t help. Maybe their app doesn’t match the way that customer’s mind works. Maybe the customer is a hot mess. Maybe their workload is unreasonable. Either way, the app creators are surprisingly willing to admit defeat. April Ramm, who does customer support for OmniFocus, will sometimes recommend a rival app to a potential customer.
This stance is … kind of unusual in the world of software, yes? One rarely hears founders candidly admit that their tool probably won’t fulfill its stated goal for many users, much less that it probably isn’t specifically right for you, either.
For years, I had a very rudimentary to-do system. Using a piece of paper, or maybe a document on my PC, I’d list my main areas of work (“WIRED Column,” “Household,” and so on). Then I’d write out all my tasks under each heading. (Under “WIRED Column”: “Call scientist about study.”) Finally, I’d make a plan. I’d number all my subtasks. Typically I’d hopscotch from project to project: My number one task would be the fourth item under “Household,” then number two was the seventh item under “WIRED Column,” and so on. Finally, with my plan laid out, I could power through my list.
Or at least I’d try to. Sometimes my system would work for days or weeks, but eventually it’d balloon into a List of Shame, and I’d guiltily declare bankruptcy.
I often suspected the problem was that my system was visually confusing. I had to scan the page to figure out what my next item was. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, I could click a button and my to-dos would arrange themselves in numerical order?
So I decided to make the app myself. I’m a hobbyist programmer, and I figured this spec was simple enough that even my hazy coding skills could pull it off.
One evening a year ago, I sat down and bashed out a prototype. The next day I started using it and found, to my delight, that it worked much as I’d hoped. I now had a numbered list I could sort and unsort quickly. I used it every day for months. Projects came and went; I filed stories and juggled tons of household errands. It felt lovely to have a tool designed for precisely the way my mind worked.
The thing is, it didn’t improve my productivity. It certainly did not increase how much paid work I accomplished. I was still filing the same number of stories, and doing the same life chores, in the same amount of time. I still found myself getting piled up and spiraling into to-do bankruptcy.
Sure, I could visualize my tasks better. But that didn’t move the needle on my efficiency. In fact, one day while working on the very story you’re reading now, I found myself staring at a monstrous List of Shame in my app. I declared bankruptcy, and then I shakily pulled out a single piece of paper and reprioritized, writing down a small handful of things I could actually accomplish.
I still use my app, intermittently. But building it made me realize a grim fact about to-do software, which is that even the most bespoke, personalized version couldn’t unfrazzle my mind. And after dozens of interviews with users and coders, talking to them about my failure—and theirs—I began to realize that a big part of our problem lies deeper than interfaces or list-making. It’s in the nature of time itself, and our relationship to it.
If you ask people to accomplish a loony amount of work this week, they’ll go, No way. Can’t be done. But if you tell them they’ll need to do that same bonkers amount in a single week one year from now? They’ll think, OK, sure, I could do that.
Something about the future defeats our imaginative capacity. “Present self screws over future self,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination. He says that we regard our future self as a stranger, someone onto whose lap we can dump tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t get that it’ll be us doing it.
One of Pychyl’s students recently tried a clever experimental trick to get people to procrastinate less. The student took undergraduates through a guided meditation exercise in which they envisioned themselves at the end of the term—meeting that future self. “Lo and behold,” Pychyl says, those people “developed more empathy for their future self, and that was related to a decrease in procrastination.” They realized that time wasn’t infinite. Future them was no longer a stranger but someone to be protected. To get us off our butts, it seems, we need to grapple with the finite nature of our time on Earth.
This is the black-metal nature of task management: Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death. (“Dost thou love life?” wrote Ben Franklin. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)
I began to suspect that this is the truly deep, arterial source of some of the emotions around to-do lists. The people who make to-do apps agreed with me. “What is this class of software supposed to do?” asks Patel, the creator of Workflowy, rhetorically. “It’s supposed to answer the question ‘What should I do right now in order to accomplish all of my life goals?’ The most scarce resource many of us have is time.”
Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal paper-based method for organizing your work, puts it in even more starkly existential terms. “Each task is an experience waiting to be born,” he tells me. “When you look at your task list that way, it’s like, this will become your future.” (Or if you want the European literary-philosophical take, here’s Umberto Eco: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)
No wonder we get so paralyzed! The stakes with PowerPoint really aren’t that high.
Given that life is composed of time, a whole sector of the task-management philosophical magisteria argues that mere lists will always be inherently terrible. Just as Pychyl showed, we overload ourselves with more than we can accomplish and create Lists of Shame because we are terrible at grasping how little time we actually have. The only solution, this line of thinking goes, is to use an organizational system that is itself composed of time: a calendar.
Instead of putting tasks on a list, you do “time blocking,” putting every task in your calendar as a chunk of work. That way you can immediately see when you’re biting off more than you can chew. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and guru of what he calls “deep work,” is probably the staunchest advocate of time blocking. “I think it is pretty undeniable that time blocking, done well, is going to blow the list method out of the water,” Newport tells me. He says it makes you twice as productive as those suckers who rely on lists. Time blocking forces us to wrestle directly with the angel of death. It’s natural that we then screw around less.
Several researchers who study tasks told me they generally agreed that time blocking avoids the problems of to-do apps and lists. One to-do app, Reclaim, actually has an AI that estimates how long each task will take and finds a slot in your calendar. (The secret point is to show you there isn’t much room in there.) “We’ll not only tell you when tasks are overdue, we’ll tell you that tasks are going to be overdue,” says Patrick Lightbody, Reclaim’s cofounder.
Though, as you might expect by this point, other productivity thinkers are equally vehement that calendars alone won’t save you. You also have to develop a Jedi-like ability to say no to your own craving to do more, more, more. Salihefendić says the people who are “really into” Todoist—and most productive—are fanatical about completing more tasks than they add.
In this vein, a whole bench of task-management philosophers believe that the best interface isn’t digital at all—it’s paper.
Paper forces you to repetitively rewrite tasks, as when, say, you transfer all last week’s undone to-dos to this week’s list, or when you erase and rewrite calendar events. That’s what I do when the productivity software I wrote for myself fails me. “Making that choice over and over again,” Carroll tells me, “is the first opportunity where you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” The inconvenience can be clarifying. Making a list on a sheet of paper is an unusually rich metaphor for life: It takes effort, and the space fills up more quickly than you expect.
The usefulness of paper here cuts to the real heart of what makes to-do management such a grim problem. Apps, lists, and calendars can help us put our priorities in order, sure. But only we can figure out what those goals are. And setting limits on what we hope to do is philosophically painful. Every to-do list is a midlife crisis of unfulfilled promise. Winnowing away things you’ll never do in a weekly review is crucial, yet we dread it for what it says about the boundaries of existence. Our fragile psyches find it easier to build up a list of shame, freak out, and flee.
This is what makes to-do software unique. The majority of tools we use in our jobs are about communicating with someone else. All that messaging, all those Google docs, all that email—it’s about talking to other people, documenting things for them, trying to persuade them. But a to-do list is, ultimately, nothing more or less than an attempt to persuade yourself.
The only thing getting me through my 30s is a cranky, agoraphobic chihuahua named Midge.
This article was published online on July 29, 2021.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I have asked one question more than any other. It’s come up time and again, day and night, as frequently in my post-vaccination spring and summer as it did in the dark moments of the pandemic’s first wave: Are you my booboo?
The question is never answered by Midge, my agoraphobic chihuahua, but the answer is obvious. She’s been my booboo since 2018, when I brought her home from a cat shelter, where she had been stashed by a Long Island dog rescue after her foster family gave her back—she didn’t like them, or anyone, and cats aren’t looking for new friends. At 12 pounds, she is twice as big as the most desirable chihuahuas, and she has a moderately bad personality, which is maybe why the puppy mill where she spent the first year of her life decided it didn’t want any more of her robust and extremely rude babies. Now almost five years old, she has grown to tolerate me. I ask her questions she doesn’t answer—if she’s my booboo (yes), if she’s a big girl (relatively speaking), if she has a kibble tummy (a little bit).
Since last March, Midge and I have been testing the bounds of what it means to live in my very small apartment together. In many ways, she’s been a perfect pandemic pal: She hates interacting with others; she loves to sit on the couch; she long ago assessed sneezes as an existential threat. Whether she was sitting on a blanket in the kitchen while I cooked, frowning at me from a safe distance while I did yoga, or watching me do chores from beneath the leaves of her favorite enormous tropical houseplant, she bore witness to a year I spent otherwise alone. Every day, she climbed up the back of the couch to snooze atop its rear cushions, her face pointed toward mine at eye level while I worked at the kitchen table.
In a year when time felt slippery, Midge kept track of it—waking me up for breakfast, waging a nightly campaign for dinner, huffing and snorting and pacing until I got up from work to play fetch with her stuffed crocodile for a few minutes. Many days, she was the only living thing I spoke to, and the only one I touched. She tolerated most of my hugs, and once, when I was in the depths of late-winter depression, she let me pick her up and hold her tiny, warm chest to my forehead for a few seconds. Her big brown eyes look dismayed and embarrassed after these displays of affection, which is usually enough to make me laugh. I tell her she’s a good girl and try not to think about how much worse the past year would have been without her.
Or, for that matter, the past three years. The 2020 pet-adoption surge was sharp: Shelters emptied and rescue groups ran out of dogs as the work-from-home set welcomed new companions for themselves and their kids. Among adults under 40, who accounted for the majority of pet adoptions, the pandemic-era spike in demand was anomalous in its intensity, not its trajectory. Millennials recently overtook Boomers as the largest pet-owning cohort of Americans; by some estimates, more than half of them have a dog. The pet-ownership rate is even higher among those with a college education and a stable income—the same people who are most likely to delay marriage, parenthood, and homeownership beyond the timelines set by previous generations. Dogs, long practical partners in rural life or playmates for affluent children, have become a life stage unto themselves.
That dogs’ roles are changing isn’t itself so surprising. Humans and canines have been molding themselves to each other’s needs for tens of thousands of years, helping ensure the mutual survival of both species. The question is why the relationship is changing so quickly right now. For America’s newest adopters, a dog can be many things: a dry run for parenthood, a way of putting down roots when traditional milestones feel out of reach, an enthusiastic housemate for people likely to spend stretches of their 20s and 30s living alone. An even more primary task, though, is helping soothe the psychic wounds of modern life.
Midge’s adoption was both planned and impulsive. In 2017, I went apartment hunting for my first place of my own in New York, looking only at buildings that allowed dogs, even though I didn’t have one. Then, I waited. How do you know if you’re ready to keep another mammal alive? I had no idea, but I found myself at a party in early 2018, in a professional rut and at the end of a relationship. A friend notorious for her flakiness showed up late, and when she arrived, she had in tow both her own happy mutt and another that she was watching for the weekend. A little bomb exploded in my head—if she could avoid killing two dogs simultaneously, surely I could manage one. I spent the next few days perusing Petfinder.com. Midge was on my lap on the B48 bus the next weekend.
I would have denied it at the time, but I got a dog because I was frustrated with everything else. The benchmarks that I was raised to believe would make me a real, respectable adult seemed foreign, even though I was 32, the same age when my mother, already a married homeowner working for the employer she’d have for the rest of her career, became pregnant with me. This particular Millennial sob story is familiar by now: Thanks to wealth inequality and wage stagnation and rising housing and child-care costs and student loans and all the rest, we’re the first generation to do worse than our parents. People like me, who grew up middle-class, don’t tend to suffer the most severe economic fallout. But the existential crisis provoked by these changes can still feel acute. All your life, you were told that if you worked to follow a particular path, you would be rewarded. Then the path was bulldozed to make room for luxury condos.Millennials recently overtook Boomers as the largest pet-owning cohort of Americans; by some estimates, more than half of them have a dog.
When I adopted Midge, I had no clear view of a future beyond my one-bedroom apartment, let alone a future involving a family of my own, and I still don’t. As I looked around for an opening through which to push my life forward, the gap that was available to me was roughly the size of a hefty chihuahua. Dogs are, for some of us, a perfect balm for purgatorial anxieties. If you have time and care to give, they love freely, they put you on a schedule, they direct your attention and affection and idle thoughts toward something outside yourself. The desire to turn outward and spend energy nurturing others is a mark of emotional maturity, but that nurturing needs a vessel.
People without kids adopt pets not only as a dry run for eventual children but for lots of other reasons, too, including as an outlet for caring impulses that have nothing to do with parenthood. They also lavish their dogs with privileges that, in America, have historically been reserved for other people: Dogs now sleep in the same bed as their humans at night; they have birthday parties; they go see their friends at day care.
But for the particular rung of the American socioeconomic ladder that has pursued dog ownership most fervently in recent years—young, urban professionals, especially white ones—dogs serve yet another purpose: They’re a class marker and a way of coping with deep status anxiety. Dogs broadcast stability—Midge is not nearly as expensive as a child or a single-family home, but she is an indicator that I have mastered enough elements of my own life to introduce some joyful chaos into it.
Yet while dogs can be an effective therapy for the stresses of modern life, especially as it grows lonelier and more precarious, their friendship isn’t always available to those who could use it most. For people clawing to maintain basic stability (instead of signaling that they’ve attained a middle-class version of it), the barriers to dog ownership are larger than simply having the disposable income to feed another mouth. A lot of subsidized and low-income housing refuses pets or limits the type and number that residents can have, and homeless shelters generally require people to abandon their pets to get a place to sleep. Companionship, whether with a pet or other people, is elemental to human dignity; in America, it’s easier to come by if you have money.
According to Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist and the author of the forthcoming book Our Oldest Companions: The Story of the First Dogs, humans and dogs have been living together for about 40,000 years, though for almost all that time, the relationship was primarily practical; we gave dogs food and heat from fire, and dogs helped us spot approaching danger and track prey.
As humans shared their hunting spoils, dogs had less need for their lupine ancestors’ brutality, and more need, evolutionarily speaking, to appeal to people. As a result, long before we started breeding them, dogs shrank, their ears flopped, their tails curled—they became cute. They also acquired eyebrow muscles that gave them a much larger range of expressions than wolves, allowing them to better communicate with humans.
In A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans, Laura Hobgood shows how, along the way, dogs became vital players in humans’ emotional lives. As smaller dogs suitable for in-home pest control (and companionship) emerge in prehistoric fossil records, their burial sites reflect a high level of care: Dogs weren’t just useful to humans; they were beloved. Still, the concept of a pet—a companion animal that plays no functional role in a household—is far more recent, dating back only about 3,000 years. The first pets tended to be tiny, manicured lapdogs, and were an extravagance of the wealthy; the ancient Pekingese breed, for example, was once legally reserved for members of the Chinese imperial court. For everybody else, the human-canine bond continued to be not only emotional but practical. (Many of the breeds now slotted into the working, sporting, hound, herding, and terrier groups at dog shows were in fact developed to perform specific tasks for agrarian families.)
Industrialization was the beginning of the end of that era for most dogs. Over time, as people left rural areas for cities, more of them began departing the home every day for work or school—and much of daily life suddenly took place where dogs weren’t allowed to go. But if dogs were with humans less, that didn’t mean that humans no longer needed their companionship—in some ways, we may have needed it more. “Having pets helps people physically and psychologically,” Shipman told me, rattling off research findings. Mental illness, incarceration, isolation, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism—virtually all modern trials can be eased, in measurable ways, by the companionship of a dog.
Seen this way, it makes perfect sense that so many isolated, stressed-out people brought dogs into their life during the pandemic. Dogs pull us out into the world, make us get some sun on our face, give us an opening to chat with our neighbors. After a year when serendipitous social interaction was hard to come by, it returned to my life in the form of Cowboy, a then-14-week-old puppy who moved into an apartment on my floor in February. While waiting for his vaccinations to be complete (same, buddy), Cowboy’s owners ran him up and down the empty hall a couple of times a day to work out some of his puppy energy. That’s how I met him, and after a few encounters, he would scratch at my door every day to say hi.
At some point soon, Cowboy’s dads will go back to in-person work, and so will I. Visions have danced in my head of loading Midge into a BabyBjörn and carrying her everywhere I go, like a real asshole. Some minority of pet owners may be able to do just that, as anxious employers try to cajole people back into the office and prevent them from jumping ship with promises of pet-friendly work spaces. But many people—even many dog lovers—will likely balk at these reverse-engineered solutions. Contemporary offices are barely hospitable to humans, let alone a new population of four-legged co-workers.
What if, instead of forcing dogs to fit our modern lives, we set about making modern life more hospitable to pets? Doing so would require us to acknowledge that our connection to other living things—and to the natural world at large—isn’t a luxury, but an essential element of what makes us human. Fittingly, virtually all of the changes that would make having a pet easier would make life more humane for people too: flexible working conditions, for example, and affordable housing, and more public green space. (That the list of dog-friendly circumstances is basically identical to the things that would make it easier for more Americans to have kids isn’t a coincidence. Dogs aren’t children, of course, but their popularity among those of childbearing age is indicative of the deep emotional commitments that people rush toward when given the chance.)
I often look down at Midge—as she weaves between my feet while I cook, or when she’s sprawled in a sunny spot, tongue hanging out—and marvel at the little animal that lives in my apartment. She knows what bedtime means, and she has somehow learned to tell whether I’m opening the fridge to get a drink or to get food, even before I touch anything. She doesn’t know how she got here, or who I am, beyond the fact that I care for her, and she takes care of me.
This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “Why Millennials Are So Obsessed With Dogs.”
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